Another Canary, Fallen

Honky was the first cat to get sick after the gas station opened in July, 2018. Within weeks he developed painful eye irritation, and his eyes were periodically red and swollen. A bad tooth developed an abscess, which was quickly treated – but he suffered for months afterwards from excruciating oral ulcers.

A rotten tooth doesn’t create oral ulcers, unless the tooth is also broken and irritating local tissue. It certainly doesn’t create sore eyes. Whatever was going on was mystifying. He lost a lot of weight and the vet suggested various scenarios about what might have been going on – ie stomatitis (where the body develops an inflammatory response to its own tissue, usually in the gums and throat), feline leukemia (but the bloodwork excluded this), possibly Bartonella, Lupus was excluded. During these awful months he became afraid of eating and I had to feed him in a room by himself, soothe him until he relaxed, and hold the plate while he ate the only soft, watered down food he felt safe with. He became thin and seemed anxious all the time. Sometimes the oral ulcers would be so painful that he would wake up, growling. I had to ask myself if I was being cruel keeping him alive.

As a last resort he was given a steroid injection – which come with their own risks including diabetes. He responded positively and started to heal. He needed a few in the year following, but they seemed to really help whatever inflammatory response his body was having. It was challenging not knowing WHY this was happening. I had my suspicions.

Honky had shown up in my front yard in June of 2008. In my old neighbourhood, there was an unfortunate pattern of people who would move away and just put their (former) cat outside to fend for themselves. I can’t tell you how many of the strays I helped who appeared within a week of the first of the month. He had a ring around his neck from where a collar had recently been removed. He was intact, of course, a late teenager-aged cat. He seemed really overwhelmed by all the sounds and action on my quiet street, which suggested he had been an indoor cat tossed out, abandoned.

Neighbours took him into in their house but he was panicked and agitated. I sat outside late at night talking to him and petting him after a meal. He started coming by every night. One night there was a big stormy downpour. I let him into the foyer to keep dry. I wasn’t sure how my cats would react to a teenaged tomcat. He lay on the floor and trilled under the door at my cats, who sat on the other side, curious. It was like he was asking a bunch of questions, or pleading. The storm raged on. Finally I cautiously opened the door inside. My cats didn’t bother him. He didn’t explore the house or look for food or anything. He walked about five feet inside the house, lay on the floor in the hall and went to sleep. He was still in that spot in the morning. I think he had been extremely stressed out about having become homeless.

He was promptly fixed and settled into my household. He was a big white cat, with sort of grey eyebrows which almost vanished as he got older, as the hair thinned on his face. His personality was goofy and affectionate. As a younger guy he was hung up on rules – and was often offended by the behaviour of some of the foster cats which came and went. He would get a ridge on his back, when he was affronted. He was like a border patrol officer or something.

As he grew up he mellowed out. He had a few cat friends, and peacefully coexisted.

The mouth ulcers flared up a few more times. All the vet could see was tiny areas of irritation. To Honky, they were like lemon juice in a paper cut, excruciating.

Honky had filled out after he recovered. I wished his former vet, who retired, could see his improved figure. He seemed to maybe be keeping to himself a little more in the summer of 2021. One of my cats is a pest, so I supposed that as he was now an older guy he just didn’t want to be bothered too much, what with the ambushes and biting. He had his favorite spots on a chair, and in the shade. Except for the whopper flea season, I thought he was having a good year.

I did notice that sometimes he was sitting hunched over, like perhaps his stomach hurt ? His appetite was good, his poop was fine, and he seemed otherwise quite normal, but I fretted, a little.

In the fall, as it grew colder, he started to get barfy. He didn’t seem otherwise nauseated, but he was sick a few hours after almost every meal for about ten days. His appetite was still good. I restricted what I fed him, which seemed to help. He had always had spells of periodic barfiness, where he was under the weather for a few days then was fine again. This often went through the other cats at the same time so I assumed that it was some kind of virus. This went on for longer before it seemed to improve.

I wondered if he had a tapeworm (transmitted as part of the flea cycle). Some cats show no symptoms while others have various gastrointestinal symptoms. He went to the vet, and was dewormed. He seemed a little more nervous about eating, so I wondered if the stress of whatever was going on his guts was going to induce more mouth ulcers ? He was given another steroid injection.

He bounced back, but not as much as before. He got pickier and pickier about eating. He seemed enthusiastic to eat what he was given, and would eat most of a full portion, then would never eat it again. This was new, and worrisome.

He still wanted to hang around with me, and happily sat on my lap whenever possible. He still wanted to go outside and see the sights, if only for a few minutes in the cold.

As he ate less and less, my fear grew. I watched him in repose, and it seemed like he was breathing more heavily, and faster. This can be a symptom of many things – from pain to congestive heart failure.

His mood seemed the same but the hardly eating was getting very serious. I made special trips to the store to buy anything novel I thought he might eat.

To further complicate everything, Xmas was fast approaching. My regular vet was so booked that reception would NEVER pick up the phone, and an email response might come hours later. I didn’t feel that what was happening was an emergency, exactly, but that it could become one without attention. I had to go to the clinic in person to even get an appointment.

He was booked to have some blood drawn, with an appointment two days later to discuss the results with the vet. My panic worsened. I knew something serious was going on. I hoped it was treatable.

While I waited I worried. I looked up the local 24 hour emergency vet and was frightened to discover that they were now working on a referral ONLY basis, because they were so short staffed. I phoned them to clarify what this meant ? How could I get a referral from my vet if they were closed ? Reception assured me that they would still deal with injuries and euthanasias of obviously ill animals, but that a client would have to go through a screening process over the phone first, and that while at the clinic, treatment was on a triage basis – the most critical situations were treated in priority. On their website, under the career section, I was shocked to read that an experienced ER veterinarian, willing to sign a one year contract, would receive a $ 50,000 signing bonus !

Honky’s bloodwork was unremarkable. He was a little dehydrated, but the typical things a senior cat might have going on were absent, like obvious kidney failure. The next step was X-rays.

The vet, a new guy I had never dealt with before, came back into the room with a serious look on his face. He showed me the digital Xray, which showed a bigger-than-a-chicken-egg-sized mass on Honky’s right lung, right under his microchip. Cancer. There were smaller opaque areas that appeared to have infiltrated the bronchial airways. It was obvious why Honky hadn’t been feeling so great. This would be big for a mass on a human lung. It was also obvious that no surgery could treat this.

Honky didn’t seem ready to give up, yet. He was given an anti-nauseant injection, and a major painkiller. I hoped that palliative care could manage his symptoms and give him a few good days. I held it together at the clinic while the friendly receptionist said she was so, so sorry to hear about this diagnosis.

Honky gobbled up a small portion of food at home then sat on the hottest floor register, and fell asleep. I hoped the pain relief would take effect and he could feel normal again.

I read about lung cancer in cats. It is very uncommon, except in cats who have lived with a smoker. I have never smoked, nor have guests ever smoked in any of my homes. It is more common that cats with lung cancer, have that cancer metasize from a different primary location in their body.

Merck Vet Manual: ” Tumours that originate in the lung(primary lung tumours)are very rare in cats. Metastatic lung disease is more common than primary lung tumours in cats. Although cats are less prone to developing primary lung cancer than dogs, the reported incidence has increased during the last 20 years. This may be due to an increased average life span, better detection and awareness, or, possibly, increasing exposure to cancer-causing agents in the environment…”

“Because spread to the lung occurs late in the clinical course of a malignant tumour, the outlook is poor.”

I went from weeping to reading about lung cancer to pestering Honky. He seemed like he didn’t like how he was feeling at all. He didn’t want to be held and he grumbled at me as I pet him. I left him alone for a few hours and hoped that drug relief might sink in. When I approached him again he growled at me. I offered him his favorite – canned whipped cream- which he completely ignored, and turned his back as he moved away from it.

As the afternoon wore down I realized that these palliative remedies – the ONLY ones – were not working. He felt horrible, worse than when I took him to the clinic in the morning. The medication would wear off within 48 hours. However – the not eating or drinking could induce worse problems, like hepatic lipidosis, which would make his last hours much worse. This WAS the slippery slope now.

I emailed the clinic to book his euthanasia for the next day, with his regular vet. They quickly confirmed. I hoped all night that the drugs would wear off and he would feel better the next day. I planned to spend some time with him in the chilly yard. My sleep was fitful, unpleasant. In the morning he still hadn’t moved from the register, and still did not want to be pet or held.

Honky always hated going to the clinic. He panicked and would try to pry the exam room door open and howl. In his drugged state, he really hated it. When you are there for a euthanasia, the reception whisks you straight to a room, so your distraught state won’t upset the other clients. I sat on the chilly floor with him, with his little brush, as he hid under the towel I had covered his carrier with. He was trembling and scared and unhappy and clinging to me. I really felt like he wasn’t ready to leave, yet, but I also knew that we were out of reasonable options. Suffering to death in pain from cancer, from starvation and dehydration, was not kind.

The vet came in. She has seen me through 3 out of 4 euthanasias. I asked her to have a look at the Xrays and tell me exactly what SHE saw. She came back after a couple of minutes. She said she saw the mass, and the other concerning areas, and that this was very serious. She kindly said that she thought that I was making the right choice. I thanked her and told her I really needed to know there was no hope.

Because of the increasing panic about the Omicron variant, I knew that public health rules might change. If I waited even a few more days I might not even be permitted to be in the same room with him, as his life was ended. As with any euthanasia, I never felt prepared or ready for this to happen. It went as well as it could. It was done.

I walked home with his body wrapped up in his carrier. Traffic was busy on December 23, with everyone getting ready for the holidays. His body was heavier than expected, in death. A thick snow began to fall as I trudged home.

I had previously, cynically, tested the ground with a shovel so I knew it wasn’t frozen yet.

By the middle of the afternoon a thick layer covered everything, with giant flakes clumped together like feathers as they fell. The forecast for the next day was above freezing.

So that’s what I did on Xmas Eve, 2021. I dug a grave for my good pal, Honky. He’ll always be there in the shade, between the two benches. He’s got a blue hosta transplanted on top, but I’ll have to wait for summer to see how that agrees with him.

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